Ready or not, here they come. Self-driving cars are on the way and it seems inevitable that they will eventually take over the roads. We will no longer be drivers; we’ll be a nation of passengers. Journalists have asked a lot of interesting questions about the driverless future, but no one seems to be talking about how this is going to affect law enforcement.
Right now, police officers spend a lot of their time enforcing traffic laws. According to this study, 41 million drivers a year get a speeding ticket, and each police officer generates, on average, about $300,000 in ticket revenue per year. Now, I don’t know how accurate these figures are, but it’s reasonable to assume that traffic citations generate a lot of government revenue.
Presumably, self-driving cars will be programmed to follow traffic laws, and even if a self-driving car did somehow break the law, there wouldn’t be a driver to cite. (I assume they’d have to fine the manufacturer of the car, which will only incentivize them to program the cars to be even more law-abiding.) However you look at it, the estimated $6.2 billion dollars a year in ticket revenue is going to dry up. It’s hard to imagine the impact on some little speed-trap towns. (I’m looking at you, Berkeley Springs, WV!)
Beyond that, traffic stops are often the first step in identifying more serious offenses. It’s common for a cop to pull someone over for not obeying traffic laws and end up finding illegal drugs or weapons in the vehicle. That presumably isn’t going to happen anymore, either.
I’m not sure how all this is going to play out, but law enforcement is one of the things that’s going to change profoundly as we transform into a nation of passengers.